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The Autobiography of Russell
Life from a different perspective
Food for Thought: half-decent
The meaning behind and usage of the word.

I have a lack of general conversation topics this morning, so I'll recall a thought I had on the way to the cafe.

On the way to the cafe I saw I sign that read "50% off Moving Supplies" and then sarcastically thought "Which means they're only half-decent now". This got me to wonder, what exactly does that phrase mean. Obviously the intention of the phrase is to say that the price, while still being more than what we would expect, is much closer to what we expect. There are two ways this particular phrasing could be interpreted.

One, and the most straight-forward, is that the price of the item is half of what is a decent price would be, yet that actually means the price is lower than what would be a decent price, so from a consumer stand-point there would be no justification of complaining.

A second interpretation, in a very round-about way, is to say that half of the (new) price of the item is what would actually be a decent price, so it is still twice what would be a decent price. This conveys the actual intention of the original phrase, yet isn't immediately clear from the wording and involves the assumption of additional wording to create the association of words for this meaning.

On the other hand we quite often use the inverse connotation of the phrase, such as "The food was half-decent", to actually mean that it surpassed decent by either half or twice a decent amount, depending on your view. Once again in this case we mean the second interpretation, but in a positive way. So while the phrase's most direct interpretation is one, we seem to always mean the second.

Current Mood: pensive pensive
Current Music: "Hold Me" by "Savage Garden" on "Affirmation"

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legolastn From: legolastn Date: July 8th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
If I say food/drink was half-decent I'm usually either being positively sarcastic (meaning the food was actually quite good/decent) or saying that it was more than "edible" but not my favorite (good but not great, missing one or more key qualities that would have put it over the top, etc). In the latter case I guess "decent" is actually a stand-in for something more like "perfection" or "delicious." It could be argued that "half-decent" and "decent" have actually become synonyms in this usage. Because of its common usage, perhaps, it seems to me something that is described as "half-decent" actually sounds better than something "half-delicious" (in this latter case it sounds like some aspect was actually horrible or something went horribly wrong half-way through eating it, for example).

I suppose the same goes for other consumable goods. You're saying it is good/adequate but missing a "certain something." If I say a movie was half-decent, I mean it was at least mildly entertaining or a good romp but not something I'd necessarily need to see again and certainly not something I'd consider buying for myself, for example. So what I really literally mean is that it was decent. Again, though, if I were to say it were a "half-great" movie I think someone would get a different idea, such as that the first or last halves were particularly bad and the rest was particularly good.

I think both of the counter examples point to something about "half-decent" suggesting more of an evenness in quality - consistent blandness rather than peaks and/or valleys, perhaps? (At least to me.)

With prices I think a similar idea applies. To say the price is half-decent means that it is better than "regular/retail" and makes me consider taking advantage of the price but maybe still not enough of a discount to convince me to buy it (although, again, it could also be a sort of positive sarcasm of saying "this is actually a really great price"). I guess whether this meets the standard of decent depends in part on whether you think retail prices are decent or indecent. :) But in any case most people want more than a "decent" price - they want a "bargain." So again I think the "half-decent" is roughly equivalent to "decent" or "half-bargain" (or, perhaps more literally "half[way-to-a]-bargain price"). The connotations in a haggling situation seem to me to put you (as a buyer) in a better situation if you say a price is "half-decent" than to say the price is "half-bargain," which perhaps is why it evolved as the usage?
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